The Great Persecution under Caiaphas, Pilate, and Paul



 The book of revelation depicts two persecutions against the church: the persecution of the dragon and the persecution under the beast, harlot, and false prophet.  In this article, we want to identify the time and circumstance of the first of these two great persecutions. 

The Dragon, the Woman, and the Man-child 

The persecution under the dragon is portrayed in Revelation twelve where it attempts to destroy the man-child at the time of its very birth:

And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars.  And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered.   

And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads.  And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born.   

And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne.  And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days.  Rev. 12:1-6

The basic imagery is taken from the garden where the dragon appears in the form of the serpent, which tempted the woman.  The serpent was not a demonic being; it was a serpent, just as the text says.  It was chosen as the medium by which the woman was tempted because of the symbolic value associated with the venom of its bite. Just as the bite of the serpent produces physical death, so sin produces moral, spiritual, and eternal death.  From an actual serpent that was given man’s voice to tempt the woman, the serpent is thence abstracted and made a symbol for sin and death and those that act in obedience to their command; the woman a symbol for the people of God.  The scripture’s then foretell the conflict between offspring of the woman and the serpent: 

And the Lord God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life: and I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel. Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.  Gen. 3:14-16

The woman’s Seed is Christ; the promised Kinsman Redeemer; the serpent would “bruise the heel” of the promised Seed (strike a nonfatal blow) in the crucifixion, but the Seed would crush the serpent’s head by the power of his cross and resurrection.  (Cf. Col. 2:14, 15)  The enmity between the woman and the serpent is manifested in the struggle between the people of God and their worldly oppressors. The symbol of the serpent was appropriated upon by the prophets, where it was merged into the symbol of Leviathan, the world civil power opposing God and oppressing his people: 

In that day the Lord with his sore and great and strong sword shall punish Leviathan the piercing serpent, even leviathan that crooked serpent; and he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea.  Isa. 27:1

In the Old Testament, Leviathan most often stood for Egypt, but similar imagery was also used for other world powers.  (Cf. Isa. 14:29; Jer. 51:34 – Assyria and Babylon)    In Revelation, the dragon is Imperial Rome.  The seven heads of the serpent symbolize the seven Caesars that would rule unto the eschaton; the ten horns represent Rome’s ten provinces.  (Rev. 17:10-12)  The woman is the mother church in Palestine to whom the promised Seed was given.  Most will concede that Christ is symbolized by the “man child” brought forth by the woman.  This is made certain by the reference in v. 5 that he would “rule the nations with a rod of iron” and was “caught up to God and to his throne.”  Jesus uses this language about himself in Rev. 3:21; however, the ultimate source of the language is the second Psalm, where it describes the risen and ascended Messiah: 

Ask of me and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.  Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them to pieces like a potter’s vessel. Ps. 2:8, 9

The dragon’s attempt to devour the Christ-child at his birth refers to Herod’s slaughter of the Innocents.  (Matt. 2:16-18)  Catching up of the man child to the God and his throne is prospective, and looks to the ascension of Christ following his death and resurrection. Christ’s earthly ministry is depicted in the imagery of Michael and his angels (Christ and the apostles) doing battle with the dragon and his angels (Sin, Rome and the Jews).  The victory over the dragon was obtained by the blood of Christ and the testimony of the gospel: 

And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death.  Rev. 12:11

When the dragon saw that he was defeated, he turned his wrath upon the woman, pouring out persecution from its mouth like a flood.  (vv. 13-15)  This persecution, following as it does fast upon the heels of the man-child’s ascension, is readily identified with the persecution that arose over St. Stephen.  Stephen was arraigned before the Sanhedrin on charges of blasphemy for teaching that Christ would come and destroy the city and temple and change the customs delivered by Moses.  (Acts 6:14, 15)  This had been the substance of Jesus’ Olivet Discourse (Matt. 23:34-39; 24, 25); Christ had also foretold of his coming while on trial before the Sanhedrin (Matt. 26:64), and the destruction of Jerusalem when led to Calvary.  (Lk. 23:37-41)  The destruction of Jerusalem by Rome had also been prophesied by Daniel (Dan. 9:24-27) and Isaiah (Isa. 66:1-1-6, 15), the latter whom Stephen quoted in his defense, exciting the counsel to murder him. (Acts 7:48, 49)  With the death of Stephen, the persecution of the woman began. 

The narrative relates that the woman was given wings for flight and a place to hide in the wilderness, where she was sustained for a time, times, and half a time, or one thousand two hundred three score days.  (vv.6, 14)  This refers to the scattering of the church upon the persecution.  Driven from Judea, the disciples carried the gospel to foreign cities among the Gentiles (“the wilderness”).  

As for Saul, he made havock of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison.  Therefore they that were scattered abroad went every where preaching the word. Acts 8:4; cf. 11:19

Not content to persecute the church in Judaea, Saul sought letters from the chief priests to go unto foreign cities and arrest those he found that professed the name of Christ.  (Acts 9:1, 2, 14)  Unlike today, when jurisdiction is based upon territory and the place where an act occurs, in ancient times, jurisdiction was also based upon citizenship.  This is nowhere more apparent than in the case of Paul.  As we read Acts, we encounter several instances where Paul’s Roman citizenship protected him against the whim and caprice of  local laws and officials, and entitled him to certain procedural and substantive rights, including the right to be tried before a Roman magistrate.  It was Paul’s Roman citizenship that enabled him to appeal to Caesar, and thus escape the wrath and power of the Sanhedrin. 

I stand at Caesar’s judgment seat, where I ought to be judged: to the Jews have I done no wrong, as thou very well knowest.  For if I be an offender, or have committed any thing worthy of death, I refuse not to die: but if there be none of these things whereof these accuse me, no man may deliver me unto them.  I appeal unto Caesar.  Acts 25:10, 11

This facet of Roman law, which recognized jurisdiction based upon citizenship, lay behind Saul’s ability to travel to foreign cities and there arrest Jews professing faith in Christ.  For it had been a right granted the Jews from the time of Julius Caesar that they were allowed to keep their own laws, were exempt from military duty and certain taxes, recognition of the Sabbath day, the right of living according to the customs of their forefathers, and full jurisdiction over their own members.   Josephus records numerous edicts by the Romans on behalf of the nation, securing them various privileges and immunities.  One in particular testifies to the fact that Jews were allowed legislative bodies and courts in foreign cities with power to make decrees and adjudicate cases binding their members.

Lucius Antonius, the son of Marcus, vice-quaestor, and vice-praetor, to the magistrates, senate, and people of the Sardians, sendeth greeting. Those Jews that are our fellow-citizens of Rome, came to me, and demonstrated that they had an assembly of their own, according to the laws of their forefathers, and this from the beginning, as also a place of their own wherein they determined their suits and controversies with one another.  Upon their petition therefore to me, that these might be lawful for them, I give order that these their privileges be preserved, and they be permitted to do accordingly.

The Sceptre of Judah and the ius gladii

Notwithstanding the ability to arrest Jewish citizens and bring them to Jerusalem for trial, the power to put men to death rested solely with the Roman governor.  The authority to adjudicate and execute sentence over capital crimes, known in Roman law as the ius gladii (“right of the sword”), is an integral part of the sovereign power given to the ruling authority by God from the days of Noah, to repress lawlessness on earth:  

For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: for he is the minister of God to thee for good.  But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.”  Rom. 13:3, 4; cf. Gen. 9:5, 6

The ius gladdii was part of the sceptre of Judah; the sovereign power reposed in the tribe of Judah.  Jacob’s prophecy to his sons indicated that the sovereign power would not cease from Judah until the Messiah had come: 

The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be. Genesis 49:10 

The sovereign power embodied in the sceptre, including the right to adjudicate and execute capital crimes, was made sure to Judah until the Messiah (Shiloh) had come.  The Messiah would then hold the sceptre. But, as the seat of Christ’s kingdom is in heaven, the sceptre of the Davidic throne would cease upon earth. And this is precisely what occurred.  In the first quarter of the first century God took the ius gladii away from Judah and gave it to the Romans. First, in the person of Herod the Great and his heirs, then in the person of the Roman procurator, and, finally, by the destruction of the nation itself.  In the absence of a king, the Sanhedrin was the sole repository of the ius gladii.   Josephus records that Herod the Great, when he had the government of Galilee, was tried before the Sanhedrin for putting the arch-robber, Hezekias, and his followers to death, but made his escape to Sextus Caesar, where he obtained the government of all Syria.[1]  Later, he was made king of Judaea by the Roman senate at the instance of Mark Antony, and was able to put men to death as an incident of the monarchial power.[2]     With the death of Herod, Archelaus reigned in his stead, but was banished to Vienna, a city of Gaul, in the ninth year of his reign.[3]  Augustus thus sent Coponius to be governor over Judaea, who held the sole authority to sit in judgment upon capital offenses. 

And now Archelaus’s part of Judea was reduced into a province, and Coponius, one of the equestrian order among the Romans, was sent as a procurator, having the power of life and death put into his hands by Caesar.[4]

The Persecution Collapses

At length, Pontius Pilate succeeded to the office of procurator by the appointment of Tiberius.[5]  The book of Acts is silent about Pilate’s role in the persecution that arose over Stephen, but, as no one might be put to death in Judea without his consent, it is almost certain that he yielded to Caiaphas in this matter, much as he had about the murder of Christ.  However, the persecution’s length had been determined at the outset.  Revelation depicts the end of the persecution by the earth wondrously opening its mouth to swallow the flood.  (Rev. 12:16)  The imagery of the earth swallowing the flood is taken from the story of Dathan and Abriam who opposed Moses, and thus went down to the pit live and whole, when the earth opened its mouth as a sign against them.  (Num. 16:29-32)  This began to be fulfilled in A.D. 36, when the future emperor, Vitellius, then president of Syria, compelled Pilate to travel to Rome to answer charges about the death of some Samaritans that resulted in the suppression of an uprising.[6]  Since the Roman procurator held the ius gladii, the persecution depended upon his cooperation if the disciples were to be put death.  Robbed of Pilate, the Jews could only beat, imprison, and excommunicate.[7]     

At the same time he removed Pilate, Vitellius traveled to Jerusalem during the Passover, where he was magnificently received by the Jews.  In return, Vitellius remitted certain taxes and restored custody of the high priest’s garments to the Jews, which, until that time, had been kept in the fortress Antonia under Roman guard.  Josephus records that as a further kindness to the Jews, Vitellius removed Caiaphas from the high priesthood.[8]  Caiaphas contrived the murder of Christ together with his father-in-law, Annas.  (Jno. 18:13, 24) The house of the Annas (viz., “Hanan,” “Annas” is the Greek form of “Hanan”) had long oppressed the Jews, together with the high priestly houses of Beothus, Kathros, and Ismael ben Phabi, as the Talmud records:

Woe is me because of the house of Beothus,

Woe is me because of their staves. 

Woe is me because of the house of Hanan,

Woe is me because of their whisperings.

Woe is me because of the house of Kathros,

Woe is me because of their pens.

Woe is me because of the house of Ismael ben Phabi,

Woe is me because of their fists.

For they are high priests, and their sons are treasurers, and their sons-in-laws are temple overseers, and their servants beat the people with clubs.[9]

Restoring the care and custody of the high priestly garments to the Jews at the same time he removed Caiaphas indicates that issues concerning the high priesthood were of high priority to the Jews and that there was widespread dissatisfaction with Caiaphas.  Upon the death of Festus, before Albinus arrived to replace him, Ananus, the son of Annas the father-in-law of Caiaphas, convened the Sanhedrin and put to death James, the Lord’s brother, with several of his fellow disciples.  Josephus records that many of the leading Jews complained to Albinus of Ananus’ convening of the Sanhedrin and unlawful usurpation of the ius gladii:

Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he [Ananus] assembled the Sanhedrim of the judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or some of his companions;] and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king [Agrippa,] desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified: nay, some of them went also to meet Albinus, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a Sanhedrim without his consent: whereupon Albinus complied with what they said, and wrote in anger to Ananus, and threatened that he would bring him to punishment for what he had done; on which king Agrippa took the high priesthood from him, when he had ruled but three months, and made Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest.[10]

Given that the apostles and church were held in high esteem by the Jewish people at the time Caiaphas was removed (Acts 5:12-16) and that many of the priests were obedient to the faith (Acts 6:7), it is quite possible that the persecution of the church contributed to the request Caiaphas be removed from office, much as it did thirty years later when Ananias was removed by Agrippa II for having stoned James.

Undaunted by the loss of the ius gladii in the person of Pilate, Saul would go on to press the persecution to foreign cities, seeking letters from the high priests to imprison those calling upon Christ. However, Saul would never reach Damascus, but would instead himself become a disciple of the Lord.  (Acts 9)  The conversion of Saul marked the end of the first great persecution. 

The had the churches rest throughout all Judaea and Galilee and Samaria, and were edified; waling in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost, were multiplied. (Acts 9:31)

Agrippa I would slay James, the brother of John, with the sword, but his persecution ended almost as abruptly as it started by Agrippa’s untimely death.  (Acts 12)  Agrippa II was too young to manage his father’s kingdom, so Claudius returned Judea to a province and sent thither Fadus as procurator.  The church thus had the protection of law under Roman rule until the death of Claudius when Nero ascended the throne.

Revelation indicates the persecution under Caiaphas, Pilate, and Paul lasted three and a half years.  Beginning with the death of Stephen until the conversion of Paul is three and a half years.  Paul states that he went up to Jerusalem three years after his conversion; then, he went again fourteen years later to the Jerusalem Counsel to settle the question whether Gentiles needed to be circumcised and obey the law of Moses.  (Gal. 2:1; Acts 15:2)  Most authorities place this at A.D. 50.  He returned two or three years later, while Gallio was proconsul of Achaia.  (Acts 18:12, 22) From an inscription found at Delphi, we know that Gallio was proconsul in A.D. 52-53.  Moreover, mention of Claudius’ expulsion of the Jews from Rome further fixes this date, for Claudius expelled the Jews in the eleventh year of reign, or A.D. 52.  (Acts 18:2)  Two years later, he went up again and was arrested.  (Acts 19:10; 20:22; 24:17, 18)  Paul remained in custody under Felix for two years.  (Acts 24:27)  We know that Festus replaced Felix in A.D. 59-60.  Thus, A.D. 59-2-2-14-3 = A.D. 38.  From the martyrdom of Stephen in A.D. 34 to Paul’s conversion in A.D. 38 accords perfectly with the three and a half year persecution portrayed in Revelation twelve.


Revelation twelve depicts the birth of the Savior, his earthly ministry, and the persecution that erupted over the martyrdom of Stephen. The wisdom and foresight of God removed the ius gladii from the tribe of Judah and placed it in Roman officials for the protection of the church. Had God not so provided, the church and gospel could not have survived and would have been extirpated at its very birth.

3 Josephus, Wars, II, vii, 3.


[4]   Ibid, II, viii, 1; Whiston ed.

[5] The succession of procurators until the revolt in AD 66: Coponius (6-9AD); Marcus Ambivius (9-12 AD); Antonius Rufus (12 -15 AD); Valerius Gratus (15-26 AD); Pontius Pilate (26-36 AD); Marcelius (36-37 AD); Marullus (37-40 AD); Fadus (44-46 AD); Tiberius Alexander (46-48 AD); Ventidius Cumanus (48-52 AD); Felix (52-60); Festus (60-62 AD); Albinus (62-64 AD); Gessius Florus (64-66 AD).  Agrippa I was king from 40-44 AD.


[6] Josephus, Antiquities, XVIII, vi, 2.

[7] Paul’s testimony that he was stoned of the Jews resulted from mob action, not lawful exercise of the ius gladii.  (Acts 14:19)  The instances in which he was beaten with rods or received 40 stripes save one, would have been under the authority of local synagogues.  (II Cor. 11:24, 25)

[8]   Josephus, Antiquities, XVIII, vi, 3.


[9] B. Pesahim 57a; T. Menahoth 13:21.  The house of Kathros has been unearthed by archaeologists and is known as the “burnt house.”

[10] Josephus, Antiquities, XX, ix, 1; Whiston ed.

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